Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Swati & Ramesh Ramanathan: Making Your Cities Work

Ramesh and Swati Ramanathan came back to India from the US with a dream: To improve urban living. They have no reason to regret their move as they move successfully and seamlessly from one uplifting initiative to another

Published: Dec 11, 2013 06:30:00 AM IST
Updated: Dec 11, 2013 10:53:51 AM IST
Swati & Ramesh Ramanathan: Making Your Cities Work
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India

Award: The Crossover Leader
Ramesh Ramanathan & Swati Ramanathan
Both are 50
Why He/She won: For making the transition from their careers in New York and London to start Janaagraha.
His/Her Trigger: They got a close view of how democracy works in the US; how citizens came together to influence issues.
His/her Mission: To improve the quality of life in Indian cities and towns by working with the people and the government.
His/Her Action Plan: Launched a range of initiatives from policy advocacy, training and developing frameworks. These are guided by the idea that urbanisation cannot be looked at in isolation and needs a broader perspective.

Four years before the phrase ‘stay foolish’ was made cool by Steve Jobs, thousands of Bangaloreans were already proudly foolish. You had to have been there. In 2001, it was not possible to spend a day in the city of beautiful weather and back-breaking roads without coming across billboards that said: ‘Here are a few fools like Nandan Nilekani, Vishnuvardhan, Dr Devi Shetty and Syed Kirmani who think they can change Bangalore. If you are also a fool, then call us.’ This was no gimmick.

Instead, it was a tool to prod citizens into playing a larger role in the creation of local budgets. The inspiration was a town, Porto Alegre in Brazil, which had adopted participatory budgeting 12 years earlier with much success. It made sense: Citizens understood their own problems better and democracy begins, if not in one’s home, at least on one’s street.

In Bangalore too, the call for action was answered. Around 5,000 volunteers showed up. They were trained and formed into groups based on wards; they then discussed what needed to be done and submitted proposals to their corporators.

Those who have experienced the bureaucratic quagmire in India would assume this exercise could only end one way: With the proposals in sarkari dustbins.

They would be wrong. Twenty-two percent of the local budget that year emerged from the citzens’ demands. For a first effort, this was a huge success.

But there was a twist in the tale. A year later, when they attempted to replicate the exercise, local administrators were indifferent; worse, they erected walls to ensure that nothing moved. It was, simply put, a flop.

This was a lesson for the couple spearheading the campaign, Ramesh and Swati Ramanathan. They had left successful careers abroad to come back to India and work towards improving the quality of life in the cities here.

They were particularly taken aback by the fact that the local administration was not bound by any law to take citizens’ views into consideration. That led Swati and Ramesh to take up policy advocacy seriously—and they started working towards getting the legislations right. That happened with the passage of JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission), a process in which Ramesh was heavily involved. The scheme included a provision to create area sabhas in cities that are similar to gram sabhas in villages. But how a city administration works is a state subject—this could not be enforced by anything but the local government’s intent. Thus far 17 states have adopted the idea, and some have made more progress than others.

One way to make sense of what Swati and Ramesh are aiming for is to understand the role institutions play in nation building.

The path to democratic reforms is never easy. Success typically depends on institutions—and building those takes time. For instance, in Russia, the collapse of the state did not automatically lead to a free market—instead the assets were captured by oligarchs because there were no institutions to help in the transition. In Mystery of Capitalism, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto argued that capitalism succeeded in the West and failed everywhere else because of the lack of institutions.

 The case for such soft infrastructure became more evident after the surge of optimism that the Arab Spring generated morphed into the disillusion that still prevails. “At one level there is the romance of democracy, and then there are the nuts and bolts of democracy. We are focussed on the latter,” says Swati.

Srikanth Nadhamuni, CEO of Khosla Labs, a startup incubator based in Bangalore, says, “This is very important for our local democracy and it also requires a lot of patience and perseverance. They have stuck it out through thick and thin to bring it to where Janaagraha is today.”

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, founder of Biocon, is equally impressed. “What Ramesh and Swati are doing is admirable. I really wish this movement had started even earlier. We would never have gotten into the mess we are in,” she says.

The problems are set to worsen as more people move to cities. Consulting firm McKinsey calls this trend ‘a force of gravity’ that will exert its influence irrespective of what happens in the rest of the world.

What then is a fix for the quality of life in cities? Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan have some answers. Janaagraha, the organisation they founded in 2001, has been at the forefront of some of the most important and interesting initiatives in this area. Ramesh was the national technical advisor to the largest urban mission in the country (JNNURM); his passion for the issue, according to some accounts, saved the mission which was on the verge of getting killed. Janaagraha was also behind Jaipur’s Master Plan 2025. Then, the organisation’s framework for urban road projects is being increasingly adopted by state governments to improve city infrastructure. The Jaago Re campaign created by them in partnership with Tata Tea resulted in registrations of more than 6 lakh first-time voters.

The inspiration for these moves may have come when Ramesh and Swati were in the US. But, really, the story begins in Bangalore.

Ramesh believes his father moved to the city because of his decision to get into business which was looked down upon by his traditional Tamil Brahmin family. Swati’s father, on the other hand, had relocated to Bangalore from Gujarat because he wanted a professional job instead of the family business. The two met in Bangalore when they were 18 and fell in love.

The relationship had its share of drama: When Ramesh was at BITS, Pilani, working towards a dual degree in physics and computer science, and Swati was at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, her parents wanted her to marry someone else. Ramesh dropped out of BITS and rushed to Ahmedabad and, after a series of events, they got married. Even though Ramesh managed to get one of his degrees from BITS, their formal education was completed only in the US when, in 1991, Ramesh got his MBA from Yale and Swati her masters from Pratt Institute of Design.

Soon, both of them landed cushy jobs and were living the American dream—but they were also getting exposed to the grassroots democracy that made things work in the country.

The young couple had just moved to a new neighbourhood in New York when they received an invitation for a weekend event at a local park. After it was over, the neighbours cleaned up the place and ended the exercise with a drink. The next morning at the railway station, Ramesh discovered that the most enthusiastic member of the weekend service was not an activist but a banker like himself. The long conversation that followed made him give serious thought to the role citizens need to play to make things better for everyone. The local council meetings—the number of participants, the quality of arguments and the range of issues—he learnt about laid the foundation for what the couple would do later on moving back to India.

By their early thirties, Swati and Ramesh had already achieved the financial targets they had set for themselves, and started working on their plans to move back to India. They were clear on a few things.

One, they would not monetise their time once they move to India. The definition of a social business is “serving the poor”, says Ramesh, it is not profiting from your business. (Janalakshmi, the micro finance arm of Jana Group which has applied for a banking licence, and Janaadhar, a low-cost housing business, are for profit but they are held by a Section 25 company.

Two, they would not compromise on their lifestyle either. That is also partly because they did not want their children to feel like “we missed something because of the choices our parents made”. To that end, Ramesh set up a corpus fund that would ensure a flow of income even after they stop working for money.

Three, they knew that their broad area of work would revolve around cities—also because they considered themselves children of cities. They would make the best use of the skills they had acquired through training and experience. Most importantly, they wanted to have a huge impact in whatever they did.

The name of their organisation reflects the scale of that ambition. The term Janaagraha is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha. Satyagraha means the insistence of the truth; Janaagraha is the insistence of the people. In almost everything Janaagraha has done so far, there has been the element of urging people to act. The Jaago Re campaign, which urged citizens to vote, is one of the better known examples.

This desire for scale also meant they had to deal with a kind of complexity that NGOs of lesser ambition don’t have to. Multifaceted problems often demand equally involved solutions, focussing in equal measure on the big picture as they do on the details; working with the state as well as leveraging on the power of the market; and making use of the head as well as the heart.

Mazumdar Shaw says that Ramesh and Swati complement each other. Ramesh is good at seeing the big picture and Swati is adept at details and execution. To achieve something of scale, you need both.

Consider some of the projects that Swati led, partly because of her background in design. Her team worked with the Rajasthan government to create Jaipur’s Master Plan 2025, which was a three-tier planning exercise for the city covering not just the physical infrastructure but also social and cultural elements. Using Janaagraha’s TenderSure framework—specifications for urban road execution—the Karnataka government has allotted Rs 200 crore for Tender Sure Roads., a digital initiative, acts at a micro level, letting users file complaints—about, say, a damaged road—and follow up through an app, leading to resolution of over 2,000 issues so far.

What helps Janaagraha is that it recognises that government has an important role to play as does the market.

For example, a couple of years ago, Swati, Ramesh and Sridar Iyengar (a partner at Bessemer Capital and now on the board of Janaagraha), were discussing bribes that citizens pay state officials to get things done. What emerged was, which now has over 20,000 instances of people paying (or not paying) bribes.

A willingness to take on scepticism and even adversity (they received threats when they were running the ‘fools’ campaign) have kept Janaagraha going and, in turn, the NGOs it supports.

Those values have made its role in governance significant. Because, while it is fair to argue that India has done well in the romance part of democracy—fair elections, free press and independent judiciary, it has mostly ignored fixing the nuts and bolts. That can happen only through a more participatory democracy.

(This story appears in the 13 December, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)